Friday April 29th, 2011

Imagine if Roger Repoz suddenly became the most dangerous hitter in baseball in 1970, or Dale Sveum in 1992. It would seem preposterous, given their non-descript big league careers. But that essentially is what has happened with Jose Bautista, the journeyman even the Toronto GM who acquired him thought would be "a super utility player" who could hit 15 home runs. Bautista has become one of the greatest surprises in baseball history.

Don't even bother wondering any more whether the 54 home runs he hit last year were a fluke. Just watch how American League pitchers are doing their best to avoid throwing strikes to the Toronto outfielder. Bautista leads the majors with 26 walks, including 14 in his past nine games during a stretch of 40 plate appearances in which he has posted a .650 on-base percentage.

Even the great Mariano Rivera pitched to Bautista April 19 as if he wanted no part of him -- issuing him a four-pitch walk with a two-run lead and a runner at third. Rivera missed so badly with the 3-and-0 pitch that it was only the third time in his career Rivera uncorked a wild pitch with a runner at third.

"It will probably go down as my greatest trade," said former Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi, who doesn't mind admitting he didn't foresee anything close to this kind of impact from Bautista.

It was August 21, 2008 when Ricciardi traded catching prospect Robinzon Diaz to the Pirates for Bautista, a trade that at first wasn't popular with Blue Jays ownership because Diaz was three years younger than Bautista. (Diaz, though, was a middling prospect. He never hit more than four homers in a minor league season and had a .266 OBP in Triple-A at the time. He wound up playing only 43 games for the Pirates.)

"We played the Pirates a lot in spring training, and I saw he had pop," Ricciardi said of Bautista. "I thought he could be a super utility player -- play some third base, left field, DH -- and I thought he could hit 15 home runs. If you told me he would hit 20 home runs, I would have believed it because you could see the power. But no way could you see 50.

"He's a hard worker and a really great guy. It's a great story and a great credit to him."

Bautista didn't make an impact right away with Toronto, his fifth organization, including two stints with Pittsburgh. By September 3, 2009, Bautista, who was 28 years old then with 1,654 major-league at-bats, looked like just another ordinary player. How ordinary? Here are some similar hitters to Bautista when they had the same number of at-bats:

It's the company of the mediocre and forgettable. But something clicked for Bautista in the last month of that 2009 season, especially adjustments in his hitting approach in which he became a "turn-and-burn" hitter -- getting his swing started earlier to pull pitches. He hit 10 home runs in his last 26 games.

In 210 games since that run began, Bautista has hit 72 home runs (one every 10.3 at-bats), drawn 135 walks and scored 152 runs. Of those 72 homers, 43 have been hit to leftfield, 18 to centerfield and only one to right.

Forget Joey Votto, Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard, Ryan Braun and Andre Ethier. Nobody can lose a baseball quicker than this journeyman-turned-monster-slugger. Bautisa leads baseball with a .760 slugging percentage, and as hard as it might be to believe because of the ordinary start to his career, he is the real deal.

I'm not sure I've seen anything quite like the career arc of Bautista, but one of the more similar stories is the one of George Foster. The Giants traded Foster to Cincinnati in 1971 for Frank Duffy and Vern Geishert. Foster was 22 years old and had played in only 54 games with the Giants. He spent four seasons with Cincinnati primarily in an outfield reserve role. Early in 1975, manager Sparky Anderson moved Pete Rose from leftfield to third base and installed Foster as his leftfielder. Foster would hit 23 home runs that year.

From 1976-78, Foster suddenly won three straight RBI titles and hit 121 home runs, including 52 in 1977.

It's not too early to think the Cubs are in trouble. Their starting pitching has been that bad -- bad enough to put some urgency into a season even before it gets to May. Chicago, by far, has the worst rotation in baseball: 5-11 with a 6.40 ERA. Its starters have thrown the fewest quality starts -- six -- including only one game this season in which a starter won a game with a quality start.

Injuries to Randy Wells (forearm) and Andrew Cashner (rotator cuff) have been part of the problem, but those pitchers were supposed to be the back end of the rotation. Matt Garza has pitched decently in some tough luck (no home runs allowed, but no wins) and Carlos Zambrano has been ordinary. The biggest problem is Ryan Dempster, the usually reliable righthander who has been abysmal without his best slider. He gave up seven runs to Arizona while getting only one out Thursday night, inflating his ERA to 9.58.

Dempster, who turns 34 next month, is 4-7 with a 7.62 ERA in his past 13 starts. The shaky starting pitching has strained the bullpen -- and apparently manager Mike Quade, who whined about the Dodgers starting a runner in only the fifth inning up 8-1, and who let reliever Jeff Stevens throw 89 pitches in a blowout. Stevens never before had thrown more than 45 pitches in a game and is not a recently converted starter; he has pitched exclusively in relief for five years. To thank Stevens, the Cubs shipped him to the minors the next day.

The Cubs have mediocrity written all over them. They have little power, especially with Carlos Peña looking lost, and even less speed (they attempted a league-worst nine steals in their first 23 games and only Houston was worse at taking an extra base). But if the starting pitching doesn't improve soon, they will be in real trouble. They play 16 straight games in May against the Reds, Cardinals, Giants, Marlins and Red Sox.

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